Asian Americans and Libraries

Anthology authors talk about identity, erasure, and inclusion

May 18, 2018

From left: Janet Clarke, associate dean of research and user engagement at Stony Brook (N.Y.) University Libraries; Arlene Yu, dance collections manager at New York Public Library (NYPL); Michelle Lee, young adult librarian at NYPL; and Miriam Tuliao, library marketing manager at Penguin Random House, at the "Supporting the Asian Pacific American Community: Librarians on Diversity, Inclusivity, and Civic Engagement" panel on May 14.Photo: Haruko Yamauchi
From left: Janet Clarke, associate dean of research and user engagement at Stony Brook (N.Y.) University Libraries; Arlene Yu, dance collections manager at New York Public Library (NYPL); Michelle Lee, young adult librarian at NYPL; and Miriam Tuliao, library marketing manager at Penguin Random House, at the "Supporting the Asian Pacific American Community: Librarians on Diversity, Inclusivity, and Civic Engagement" panel on May 14.Photo: Haruko Yamauchi

Many chapter authors asked me, ‘Is this really the first book on Asian-American issues in libraries?’” recalled Janet Clarke, associate dean of research and user engagement at Stony Brook (N.Y.) University Libraries and coeditor of Asian American Librarians and Library Services: Activism, Collaborations, and Strategies (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017). “And I said, ‘Yes, really.’”

Clarke was one of seven featured librarian panelists at “Supporting the Asian Pacific American Community: Librarians on Diversity, Inclusivity, and Civic Engagement,” a round table held at Pratt Institute’s School of Information in New York City on May 14. Panelists included Clarke’s coeditor Raymond Pun and five of the book’s chapter authors, who discussed issues ranging from identity to visibility to the future of inclusive librarianship.

Michelle Lee, young adult librarian at New York Public Library (NYPL), opened with an overview of demographics. Asian and Pacific Americans, at 21.6 million people, constitute 6.8% of the country. Despite being one of the fastest-growing US populations, Lee said Asian Americans are still underrepresented in many areas, including library staffs.

One persistent challenge is the erasure of the American part of the identity, at both the personal and institutional level, panelists said. When Lisa Chow, web analyst at Brooklyn Public Library and partner at organizational consulting firm People Interact, asked the audience who routinely heard the questions, “Where are you from? No, where are you really from?” many hands shot up.

Pun, first-year student success librarian at California State University, Fresno, said he challenged Artstor when he saw the online image library promoting Asian Pacific American Heritage Month with photos of ancient vases from China. Arlene Yu, dance collections manager at NYPL, added that she is “constantly reminding people that Asian-American dance is not the same thing as Asian dance.” She noted that the subject heading “Asian-American dance” had not been created until 2016, despite its existence for decades.

Panelists described changes they want to see in the field. “We need to interrogate the whiteness of librarianship more,” said Clarke. “Diversity and inclusion are still too often an afterthought.”

When an attendee asked what actions white colleagues could take, Clarke encouraged them to raise these issues and not rely on people of color to speak first. “Let us know you’re in the room, too,” she said. She also underscored the importance of understanding the complex intersectionality of oppressions, including those based on gender, sexuality, and socioeconomic status.

On a more optimistic note, Miriam Tuliao, library marketing manager at Penguin Random House, had just finished teaching library school semesters at Queens (N.Y.) College and Indiana University, and praised her students. “I was with 60 future librarians who will rock and roll,” she said. “I have faith in what they’ll do. They notice what’s wrong, want to make a difference, and care deeply about what their communities need.”

As for serving those communities, Tuliao said librarians must go beyond building culturally representative collections to creating robust programs and outreach and speaking up for change. “You should advocate for as many people as you can when you have a seat at the table—whether it’s in the staff room or the board room,” she said.

Lee added that librarians should not wait for ethnic heritage months to promote works by or about people of color but should incorporate such books into everyday readers’ advisory.

Addressing library students and new librarians, Chow relayed advice she received early in her career from another Asian-American librarian: “Be vocal and be visible.” Sandra Sajonas, also a partner at People Interact, warned Asian Americans to be wary of stereotypes and expectations that they will never complain. “Don’t be the ‘Asian workhorse,’” she cautioned. “Be clear about your limits.”

Several panelists stressed the importance of mentors, peer support, and community, recommending the Asian Pacific American Librarians Association and the upcoming Joint Conference of Librarians of Color in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

“Find your library family,” Tuliao urged. “It sustains you to know you’re not alone.”

Update: Corrected the job titles of Janet Clarke and Arlene Yu, May 21, 2018.
Update: Corrected the date and campus of the event, May 22, 2018.

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